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March 1, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Closers in Peril

by Jeff Erickson

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Last week I promised that I'd name three closers who will lose their jobs this season. Now, more than three teams will change their closers this year, but I'm going to stick with teams that have established closers who won't have to win their jobs in spring training. After all, it doesn't take the Amazing Kreskin to discern that changes are likely in Colorado or Toronto. Here is my Unholy Trinity: if you believe in them, you will not be saved.

    Jose Mesa

    How many times have we written off Mesa, only to see him surface elsewhere with the closer's job in some new outpost? He has held and lost the job with three teams (Indians, Mariners and Phillies), and the Pirates will likely become the fourth team on that list this year. This time, his reign as a full-time closer will end for good.

    I'm most confident about pitchers who average at least 7.0 K/9, because a high strikeout rate correlates well with positive fantasy results (per Ron Shandler at Baseball HQ) A closer, especially one asked to pitch multiple innings, can be held to a higher standard. Such a pitcher will often be brought into situations with runners on base, needing a strikeout to prevent the runners from advancing. A pitcher who allows more balls in play naturally is at greater risk.

    In 2004, Mesa's strikeout rate dropped from 6.98 K/9 to 4.80. Even if he gets off to a good start, he's still at risk to be traded by the Pirates to a team that may use him in a different role. While he isn't especially expensive (he'll make $2 million this season, and has a $4 million option for 2006 with a $500,000 buyout), they still have cheaper alternatives and a strong likelihood of not being in the playoff hunt come trade deadline time.

    The top alternatives to Mesa are Mike Gonzalez and Salomon Torres, both of whom are coming off of good seasons in relief. Gonzalez would be my preference from a purely statistical standpoint, but he has two strikes against him. He's relatively inexperienced, with just 51 2/3 major-league innings on his resumé. Also, being left-handed works against him; there's a bias among managers in using a left-hander as a closer, for fear of not having him available earlier in games against tough left-handers in the opposing team's lineup. Still, just this weekend members of the Pirates' coaching staff mentioned him as a future closer, so at least they're contemplating him in that role.

    Torres doesn't have the same strikeout numbers that Gonzalez has, but he does have the confidence of manager Lloyd McClendon after converting a team-high 30 holds last season. Torres does a good job of keeping the ball down and preventing walks, making his lower strikeout rate a little more acceptable.

    
    Pitcher            SV/Opp     K/9     K/BB
    
    Jose Mesa           43/48    4.80    37/20
    Mike Gonzalez         1/4   11.42     55/6
    Salomon Torres        0/4    6.07    62/22
    
    Danny Graves

    Graves' second-half splits send out a strong warning signal. After the All-Star break, the Reds' closer had a 7.23 ERA, 1.98 WHIP, .349 batting average allowed and an 11/8 K/BB ratio over 18 2/3 innings. While the All-Star break isn't a magical demarcation point, Graves' performance after that is significant enough to make you take note. He also made his first trip to the DL with a back injury. If you own him in a keeper league, talk up his 41 saves--try not to point out that 33 of them came before the break--and see if you can get full value for him. Graves is in the final year of his contract, although there is a mutual option for 2006; like Mesa, he will make a good trade candidate if the Reds are out of the race.

    It's not clear who Graves' potential successor will be. The candidates include David Weathers, Ben Weber, Joe Valentine, Ryan Wagner and, my personal darkhorse, Jose Acevedo. In the wake of an awful 2004 performance by their bullpen, the Reds brought in Weathers, Weber and Kent Mercker this offseason to add a veteran flavor to it. Frankly, Weathers isn't all that more inspiring than the men he's replacing. His strikeout rate of 6.6 K/9 is just pedestrian for a reliever, his strikeout-to-walk ratio hasn't been above 2.0 since 1998, and he allowed a whopping 12 homers in 82 1/3 innings last year. Weber's 2004 line was marred by his battle with carpal tunnel syndrome, but he's never had closer-worthy strikeout numbers throughout his career. The Reds almost certainly will use him in the sixth and seventh innings.

    That takes us to the more likely long-term options. When Graves went on the DL last year, the Reds turned to Valentine and his standout fastball. He converted all four of his save opportunities, but at the same time demonstrated the lack of command that worries people, walking 25 batters in 29 innings. Until he can avoid being a walk machine, any sort of long-term promise must be tempered.

    Meanwhile, the Reds' nominal closer of the future is 2003 first-round pick Wagner. After a solid late-season debut in 2003, Wagner was battered at the start of '04 and ended up back in Louisville. Chalk his season up as an adjustment period and hang onto him if you're in a keeper league. He has plenty of time to rebound. After the Reds' offseason moves, Wagner could begin the year at Triple-A Louisville or in low-leverage situations with the parent club. His long-term outlook is still as a closer, but it won't happen in 2005.

    Finally, I might be the last remaining Jose Acevedo apologist out there. After a decent beginning to his 2004 season, Acevedo flopped spectacularly, struggling with the gopher ball. There is still hope, however, as his splits were significantly better once the Reds decided to use him as a reliever late in the season: he threw 17 scoreless innings in 12 relief appearances. While the Reds haven't suggested as much, he could fit in quite nicely as a closer if he can maintain his progress as a reliever. Remember, more often than not, most closers aren't groomed as such coming up through the minors. Instead, they're usually relievers long confined to a set-up role, failed starters, or starters who couldn't stay healthy enough to last deep into games.

    
    Pitcher                 SV/Opp     K/9     K/BB
    
    Danny Graves             41/50    5.27     40/13
    David Weathers             0/4    6.67     61/35
    Ben Weber - '04            0/1    4.43     11/15
    Ben Weber - career        7/17    5.10    154/96
    Joe Valentine              4/4    8.90     29/25
    Ryan Wagner                0/3    6.45     37/27
    Jose Acevedo- overall      0/0    6.68    117/45
    Jose Acevedo - relief      0/0    5.29      10/1
    
    Bob Wickman

    I debated putting Troy Percival, Danny Kolb, Eddie Guardado and Danys Baez in this last spot. Ultimately, I decided to go with Wickman because all the warning signs are here. Past injury history? Check. Declining indicators? Check. Solid options behind him? Check. Wickman's balky elbow will probably cut his season short, but his declining strikeout rate and rising walk rate also scare me.

    Bobby Howry is probably the first alternative for manager Eric Wedge. He has experience closing, posted a good season last year upon his return from his own elbow surgery and, perhaps most importantly, hasn't burned any opportunity bridges by failing last year, like most of the other candidates in the Indians' pen did. After what the Indians went through in the first half of 2004, look for them to be especially risk-averse with this spot.

    Arthur Rhodes was brought in, in exchange for Matt Lawton, to be the top left-hander in the bullpen. He has closing experience, but most recently he lost the job with the A's last season. A few early-season nagging arm injuries didn't help, and a serious back injury limited him after the All-Star break. Rhodes' strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio have declined for two straight seasons. Still, as a veteran, he might get the call over the next two pitchers, who I think are the better alternatives.

    What does Rafael Betancourt have to do to get some organizational respect? Accounting for the entire season, he was perhaps their best reliever, but he's not even guaranteed a spot in the bullpen at the start of it. The one negative stat for him is his seven blown saves; however, most of those came in non-save situations, pitching in the seventh and eighth innings, where he allowed an inherited runner to score. His strikeout rate is superb and he does a great job of keeping runners off base.

    Finally, don't count out last year's early-season closer, David Riske. I'm still a believer in him, despite the rough beginning last year. For once, it's imperative to look beyond the numbers to explain Riske's results. It turns out that Riske's newborn son was born with an obstruction in his kidney, a condition that eventually improved but may have taken its toll on his performance. Following a disastrous April and May that cost him the closer's job, Riske stabilized to put together a credible season in a set-up capacity. I could still see him succeeding as a closer, although he might have to do it elsewhere.

    
    Pitcher            SV/Opp     K/9     K/BB
    
    Bob Wickman         13/14    7.89    26/10
    Bobby Howry           0/2    8.23    39/12
    Arthur Rhodes        9/14    7.91    34/21
    Rafael Betancourt    4/11   10.26    76/18
    David Riske          5/12    9.08    78/41
    

Next week: We'll take a look at some of the hotter job battles going on in spring training, and how they affect your planning for fantasy drafts.

--

Jeff Erickson is the senior editor at Rotowire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus," heard every weekday at 2 p.m. ET on XM Channel 175. He can be reached here.

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